By Ayden Vasquez
In a high-stakes showdown, two undefeated teams battled fiercely for ideal playoff positioning.
The Riverside City College Tigers suffer a heart-wrenching fourth-quarter loss at Wheelock Stadium to the Fullerton College Hornets in the conference championship game.
The opening quarter kicked off with a swift start for RCC with a strong eight-yard gain down the field’s center by sophomore running back Byrce Strong.
After a series of passes by the Tigers’ quarterback Jordan Barton and an additional rushing attempt by Strong, RCC concluded its initial drive after four plays, managing only nine yards of offense by Fullerton’s defense.
Following an unsuccessful first drive, RCC’s defense took the field. The Tigers only allowed Fullerton’s offense to gain 12 yards on its first drive of the game. Hornets quarterback Brandon Nunez then threw a pass which was intercepted by RCC’s defensive back Edward Gilds, halting Fullerton’s drive.
After a quarter of limited offensive production from both teams, the Tigers made the initial mark with a 29-yard field goal by kicker Gabe Panikowski, ending with a score of 3-0.
“We’re the top-scoring team in Southern California,” RCC head coach Tom Craft said. “If we got it done offensively like we have throughout this season, this game would have a very different outcome.”
This defeat not only signifies the team’s first loss this season but also marks the first instance that the Tigers’ high-scoring offense failed to score more than 38 points in a game.
“Fullerton is a very defensive team and we just couldn’t get over that hump,” Craft said.
Going into the second quarter, RCC marched down the field for a total of 27 yards before a hard tackle on Jordan Barton from Hornets’ defensive back Jordan Little. The play forced a fumble halting the drive as Fullerton recovered possession.
“Today wasn’t one of my best individual performances,” Barton said. “Today was not just a reality check for me but for the team as a whole. Now all we can do is fix our mistakes in practice and go into the playoffs with a chip on our shoulder.”
Following the forced fumble, the Hornets made a 30-yard push downfield to the Riverside 25-yard line. Fullerton’s kicker, Jonathan Fobear nailed a 35-yard field goal, evening the score at 3-3.
Both RCC and Fullerton’s defenses remained impressive, preventing scoring until late in the game and holding each other below 400 yards of total offensive yards.
“It felt good being able to hold them below 20 points,” said RCC nose guard Tony Ulima. “But as a defense, we just have to be better and more disciplined. Especially after a humbling loss like this.”
Despite occasional errors throughout the game, RCC’s defense was still performing at a high level. Holding the Hornets to 60 yards of offense in the first two quarters of the game before going into halftime.
In the third quarter, Fullerton’s defensive errors allowed RCC to advance to the Hornets’ 37-yard line. The Tigers capitalized, scoring their first touchdown on a 37-yard pass from Barton to receiver Jacqueze Modica, who broke free from the Hornets’ defense.
Following Panikowski’s successful extra-point attempt for RCC, Fullerton shifted its focus from scoring to defensive resilience.
The third quarter emphasized shutdown defense, ending with a score of 3-10 going into the fourth.
The fourth quarter started slowly as RCC marched downfield, capping their drive with another field goal from Panikowski, extending the lead 3-13
Following a 28-yard kickoff return from Fullerton wide receiver Christian Steward, their drive began. Four pass attempts later, with two successful, the Hornets scored on a 59-yard catch and run from Steward down the left sideline off a screen pass.
With the successful extra point, Fullerton closed the gap by three, leaving the score 13-10.
RCC advanced up the field for 63 yards before being stopped in the red zone once more by Fullerton’s defense. Settling for another field goal to maintain a 10-16 lead going into the final six minutes of the game.
Despite RCC’s defensive effort, the Tigers fell to mental mistakes as Fullerton marched into scoring position. The Hornets scored on a wide-open pass to Steward.
After Fobear’s successful extra point, RCC’s final drive concluded with Barton’s interception by Fullerton’s Tyan Milton on a Hail Mary pass.
After running out the clock, the Tigers suffered a 17-16 defeat, marking their first loss of the regular season and their first loss at home.
“I’m upset, of course,” Strong said. “But we still have playoffs and that’s all I’m looking forward to.”
This loss concludes the Tigers’ regular season with a 9-1 record. They now await their postseason bracket positioning, motivated by a sense of determination.